Some time ago Adam wrote a fine piece about ethics in House, arguing that House’s apparently unethical behavior—his devotion to solving the intellectual puzzle of illness at the expense of obeying hospital rules or caring about the wellbeing of patients—is in fact the ethical attitude par excellence. Adam explains: “Only by practicing medicine for its own sake and not for the people, and directly enjoying its inherent satisfactions, can he ever hope to solve the hopelessly complicated cases that he is faced with.” You could derive a couple of ethical theories from this. Focussing on the part about “practicing medicine for its own sake” might lead you to something like Badiou’s claim in Ethics, that there is no such thing as ethics in general, but only the ethics of a particular situation, such that the only possible “medical ethics” is simply to practice medicine as well as possible.
The other position here focuses on House’s enjoyment; House’s ethics lie in embracing his enjoyment, rather than attempting to find some moralistic justification for his actions. Adam’s description of House enjoying medicine’s “inherent satisfactions” kind of aligns this with the Badiouian theory in that the ethical act depends on the specifics of the medical situation. But I think House would get the same enjoyment from some other intellectual pursuit; the medicine is at bottom extrinsic to House’s enjoyment. It would be interesting to consider the ethical implications of a character whose pursuit of an apparently praiseworthy pursuit hinges on an enjoyment that is extrinsic to, even at odds with, the apparent norms of that pursuit.
The Wire‘s Jimmy McNulty is just such a character. McNulty’s most prominent characteristic is his willingness to go uo against the Baltimore Police Department’s chain of command in order to pursue a case; but it’s not clear this is ever motivated merely by a desire to solve crimes. At the end of the first season, McNulty claims his pursuit of Barksdale was motivated by a desire to prove himself right; the beginning of the second season provides an even better example. In the first couple of episodes, McNulty spends a great deal of time and effort assembling information that ensures that murder investigations are opened into the deaths of 14 unknown women, something which he does, and with great pleasure, solely to fuck over his old commander, Major Rawls of the homicide unit, who will know have to deal with the statistical fallout of 14 unsolvable cases. What’s interesting here is that McNulty, employing the bureaucratic obstructions of the police department in order to pursue a personal vendetta, sets in motion a train of events that leads to these women being identified, and legal procedings against drug and human traffickers (the other impetus, it occours to me, is Major Valcheck’s even more petty vendetta against union boss Frank Sobotka).
(Adam also talks about House‘s medical utopia, in which doctors, rather than insurance companies, make decisions about treatment. I wonder how much this TV image—not confined to House—leads people to accept those absurd ads currently on TV talking about Obama’s terrifying plan to introduce bureaucrats into the US health care system. Of course, the ads’ fantasy healthcare system in which medical decisions are made by doctors actually exists, but it’s not in the US, it’s in the UK, and doubtless every other country with socialized medicine.)